As a reward for his excellent 2015 season in Double-A Biloxi, Jorge Lopez was given the opportunity to make his big-league debut at the end of last season. It did not go all that well — 10 strikeouts and five walks in 10 innings — but it was a fitting cap to a high-quality season for the young right-handed starter. This performance was reflected in his jump up to number three in BP’s Brewers’ Top-10 Prospects list, where he trailed only Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips.
Given that Lopez is still just about to turn 23 and did not make his debut until September 29 last year, he is nowhere near a certainty to break spring training with the big-league club. In fact, he will almost surely be sent to the minors to begin 2016; this will both ensure he gets consistent innings as well as help the Brewers weigh Lopez’s readiness for the biggest stage in baseball.
Four of Milwaukee’s six starting pitchers that broke 100 innings in 2015 remain in the organization, and each of those four — Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann, Wily Peralta, and Jimmy Nelson — is likely to be on the Opening Day roster, which means there won’t be consistent innings available for a starting pitcher until one of those four is moved out of the rotation. But with pitcher volatility being what it is, such an occurrence is, of course, likely.
Garza has a checkered injury history, with his most recent disabled list stint coming just last year because of shoulder tendinitis, and Peralta also landed on the DL in 2015 with a muscular issue (although his was an oblique problem). And while neither of these two are guaranteed to return to the disabled list in 2016 just because of past problems, neither are Jungmann and Nelson guaranteed to be completely fine despite their relatively clean bills of health.
I will not attempt to predict which starter will get hurt; I will only say that I absolutely expect at least one of them to do so. Performance concerns, though, are much easier to predict, and there are two giant question marks among those top four: the aforementioned Garza and Peralta. Garza was benched in 2015 after posting a 5.36 DRA and being below replacement level in nearly 150 innings. Peralta was even worse, with a 5.85 DRA and he was a full win below replacement level in just 108.2 innings.
From Lopez’s perspective, though, the problem is that the Brewers are unlikely to cut bait on either of those two pitchers early on. Peralta is still early in the arbitration process and won’t be a free agent until the 2019 season, and Garza is owed $12.5 million this year and next, so the Brewers are invested in keeping both players happy and performing well.
Additionally, while Lopez certainly appears to have a bright future, he will be competing with other pitchers who do not necessarily have the same question marks. For all of the promise he showed last season, his previous two seasons were not of the same level. In each of 2013 and 2014, he walked at least three batters per nine innings and struck out fewer than eight.
However, in 2015, that strikeout rate jumped to 8.6 per nine innings, which is certainly encouraging, and the positive scouting reports match the uptick in performance. In his rundown of the Brewers’ Top 10, BP’s Christopher Crawford outlined the improvement in Lopez’s stuff and command, ultimately painting a rosy picture for the right-hander, suggesting that he is likely to settle in as a mid-rotation starter. It is this optimism that will buoy Lopez when he eventually makes his 2016 debut.
But once a rotation spot does open up — whether it be through injury or demotion — Lopez will have to compete with a few other pitchers for playing time. Zach Davies will probably be the first option; he was called up at the beginning of September and started throughout the final month of the season, which appears to indicate an organizational preference. Thus, while Davies likely gets the first shot because he appears to be more major-league ready, Lopez has a higher upside and is more likely to be a key member of the rotation going forward.
Other potential options include Tyler Wagner, Ariel Peña, and Tyler Cravy. None of those three are high-impact arms (and none of them are particularly promising), so while any of those three could be the choice for a spot start over Lopez if minor-league rotations require it, they wouldn’t be the top option if a longer-term replacement is required. Adrian Houser and Josh Hader, both acquired in the Carlos Gomez trade, are also options, but each is farther away than all the pitchers previously mentioned in this article and so would likely be behind Lopez in a call-up list.
Lopez took a big step forward in 2015, and the Brewers will hope that he continues to progress in 2016. However, they will know that the best way for him to do so is to get consistent innings, so they likely will not bring him up to the big leagues unless there is a chance for him to truly settle into the rotation. Should that point come in 2016, it will then be up to Lopez to prove he belongs.